In which we meet for Tommy and Tuppence for the final time, as they have retired to the coastal resort of Hollowquay and set up home in an old house called The Laurels, accompanied by their faithful old retainer Albert and a mischievous Manchester Terrier called Hannibal. The old house still has a number of old books left by the previous owners, and as Tuppence is sorting through them, she discovers a code in one of the books that she deciphers as the message: “Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one.” But who was Mary Jordan, and who killed her? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!
The book is dedicated “for Hannibal and his master”. Agatha Christie kept Manchester Terriers, among one of which was Bingo, and it is believed that the fictional doggie Hannibal is based on him. Presumably, his master was Max Mallowan! Postern of Fate was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1973, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later the same year. Unlike most of her other books, it doesn’t appear to have been serialised in any periodicals or magazines.
There are two possible approaches to reading this book. The first is to be charitable. Christie was 83 when this was published, and held in the highest regard by both her editors and her loyal fanbase. One can well imagine that any suggestions or reservations the editors might privately have held would have been suppressed in order not to offend the Grande Dame; and her loyal readers would buy it by the bucketful anyway. This was to be the last book she would write; her powers were waning and, by all likelihood, early signs of dementia were setting in. It was never going to be a masterpiece.
The alternative approach is to compare it in the cold light of day with her other works – and it fails dismally. As in all her later year books, it kicks off with a very inventive opening, but the follow-through just isn’t there. As with Elephants Can Remember, the book is littered with endless repetitions, only this time there are also swathes of unnecessary characters, irrelevant discussions and themes; and there are many nostalgic passages where Tommy and Tuppence recollect their former glories and best detective work of the past. When we finally come to the crunch, there’s no real denouement. As T S Eliot said in The Hollow Men, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper”.
That’s not to say that it’s unreasonable for Tommy and Tuppence to live in the past so much. To be fair, that’s a perfectly legitimate characterisation for the couple, who are now retired and have time on their hands to look back. The trouble is, you can accept it the first time they do it, but when they do it time and time again it’s very boring for the reader. On Christie’s part, it’s fairly unforgiveable of her to include in their recollections of the N or M? case the fact that she actually gives away the identity of the criminal in that book – so you definitely don’t want to read Postern of Fate before reading N or M? (not that I rate that book highly anyway!)
The book clearly required much more heavy editing than it received. There are so many extraneous conversations about irrelevant subjects, like James the Sealyham, or Great-Aunt Maria’s purse of sovereigns, wrongly marked price tags in shops, or the interminable references back to the books of their childhoods. It’s full of Tommy and Tuppence’s domestic banter about a wide range of personal matters that clearly amused Christie (and maybe does for T&T’s most loyal fans) but for most readers it simply drags the narrative down.
I feel this would have worked better as a snappy short story rather than a rather long novel. Clues are written in, very obviously, and the reader works them out much earlier than Tommy and Tuppence do. One clue – that of Oxford and Cambridge (I won’t say what its relevance is) is discussed once and then they come back to it later as if it was a brand new idea. There’s also a lack of continuity from earlier books; for example, Deborah Beresford is said to be the mother of twins but those twins turn out to be aged 15, 11 and 7 – three twins, that’s interesting! There’s a villager named Miss Price-Ridley, but in previous books the Price-Ridleys featured in Miss Marple cases such as The Body in the Library and The Murder at the Vicarage – a completely different world from that of the Beresfords. Christie also gives Hannibal, the dog, a voice, and pretends that it speaks to its owners, in a rather self-indulgent and nauseously babyish way. All in all, not my cup of tea.
Having said all that, there’s one aspect of the relationship between Tommy and Tuppence which hadn’t really been spelled out in the previous books but is very clear here – and it concerns worrying about the other’s wellbeing. Tommy has always been the solid, reliable type, and Tuppence has always been the more unpredictable, flighty partner. With increasing old age, this difference becomes a little more serious. Tommy ““worried about Tuppence. Tuppence was one of those people you had to worry about. If you left the house, you gave her last words of wisdom and she gave you last promises of doing exactly what you counselled her to do: No, she would not be going out except just to buy half a pound of butter, and after all you couldn’t call that dangerous, could you?” “It could be dangerous if you went out to buy half a pound of butter,” said Tommy.”
Albert still lives with them; now widowed, he’s their general housekeeper, cook, and general all-round factotum. He also worries about Tuppence, on Tommy’s behalf, and also for his own peace of mind. Other recognisable names are Colonel Pikeaway and Mr Robinson, both of whom we first encountered in Cat Among the Pigeons, and Mr Horsham who was also a character in Passenger to Frankfurt. In their recollections, Tommy and Tuppence remember the characters from their earlier cases, such as Jane Finn and Mr Brown, as well as (of course) their adopted daughter Betty who appeared in N or M?
There are only really two locations mentioned in the book. One is London – where Tommy regularly attends business and other meetings; the other is the completely fictional Hollowquay, home to The Laurels. Putting two and two together, Hollowquay is clearly based on Torquay.
Now for the references and quotations in this book. Many of them refer to old children’s books. The first story that Tuppence remembers reading as a child is Androcles and the Lion, told by Andrew Lang, who wrote collections of folk- and fairy-tales, the majority of which were published in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.
Here are the other books and authors mentioned in the book:
Mrs Molesworth (1839 – 1921), who wrote The Cuckoo Clock (1877), The Tapestry Room (1879) and Four Winds Farm (1887).
Stanley Weyman (1855 – 1928) writer of Under the Red Robe (1894) – about Cardinal Richelieu, and The Red Cockade (1895).
L T Meade (1844 – 1918) writer of girls’ stories
Winnie the Pooh by A A Milne (1882 – 1956)
Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898)
Charlotte Yonge (1823 – 1901), writer of Unknown to History (1881) and The Daisy Chain (1856)
E Nesbit (1858 – 1924) writer of The Story of the Amulet (1906), Five Children and It (1902) and The New Treasure Seekers (1904)
The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope Hopkins (1894)
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894), writer of The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses (1888), Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886) and Catriona (1893).
G A Henty (1832 – 1902)
I haven’t yet been able to identify the writer or date of The Little Grey Hen.
One of the chapter titles is Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. That’s a quote from Alice in Wonderland. Tommy and Tuppence have possession of an Erard Piano, named after Sébastien Érard, a piano maker from Strasbourg, considered to be amongst the finest in the world. When Tuppence is playing it, she recollects a song: “Where has my true love gone a-roaming?” but I can’t find it online anywhere – does anyone recognise the song?
Tuppence quotes “new sins have old shadows” – but she’s in error. The correct phrase is old sins cast old shadows; and it’s an old proverb. Talking of Proverbs, Colonel Pikeaway refers to the daughters of the Horse Leech, which was a phrase I’d never heard before; it comes from the Old Testament, Book of Proverbs, Chapter 30, Verse 15. At the sight of Hannibal, he also quotes “dogs delight to bark and bite” which is from a hymn by Isaac Watts: “Let dogs delight to bark and bite, For God has made them so: Let bears and lions growl and fight, For ‘tis their nature, too.” Colonel Pikeaway refers to the Frankfurt Ring business, which I can only presume is a nod to Christie’s very own Passenger to Frankfurt.
Regular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There are only a couple of low value sums mentioned. Beatrice’s coat, that was double-priced at both £3.70 and £6, today would be priced at £31 and £50. Still very reasonable. And there’s a suggestion that someone might have offered a fiver to tamper with some wheels. A fiver then would be worth £42 today. That’s not enough to endanger a life, I wouldn’t have thought.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Postern of Fate:
Publication Details: 1973. My copy is a HarperCollins Paperback, published in 2015, bearing the price on the back cover of £7.99. I know I had an earlier copy, but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration shows a rocking horse, casting a shadow of a man in a top hat riding that very same riding horse.
How many pages until the first death: This edition has 325 pages – it’s much more spaced out and paper-greedy than the old Fontana paperbacks. The first death which is reported comes on page 46; the first (only) death that takes place during the course of the book’s narrative comes on page 213 – so that’s quite a long wait.
Funny lines out of context:
Tommy, in conversation with Mr Robinson. ““And now,” said Tommy, “now you’re the tops.” “Now who told you that?” said Mr Robinson. “All nonsense.” “I don’t think it is,” said Tommy. “Well,” said Mr Robinson, “some get to the tops and some have the tops forced upon them.” That’s one for my gay friends.
Memorable characters: Sadly none. Most of the villagers are stereotypical country bumpkins; all the characters are bland.
Christie the Poison expert: The historical death takes place as a result of foxglove leaves being mixed up with spinach leaves in the kitchen to create a rather lethal meal.
Class/social issues of the time:
One of the accidental side effects of Christie’s writing style having lost its drive and its sense of narrative, is that there are plenty of conversations where characters ramble on about things inconsequential to the story, but not their day-to-day lives. As a result, Christie provides us with something of a running commentary on the events and news of the time.
For example, regular chilly weather in the afternoons is seen as a possible side-effect of “all the natural gas they’re taking out of the North Sea.” People are exploring science, which results in them flying to the moon, or researching oxygen being supplied by the sea not the forests. Pikeaway is suspicious of Europe: “Got to keep in with the Common Market nowadays, haven’t we? Funny stuff going on there, by the way. You now, behind things. Not what you see on the surface.” He later goes on to lament “there’s always trouble. There’s trouble in every country. There’s trouble all over the world now and not for the first time.” Conspiracy theories abound: “Do we know anything about germ warfare? Do we know everything about gases, about means of inducing pollution?”
The boy Clarence attributes the shooting in Tommy and Tuppence’s garden to the Irish Republican Army. ““I expect it’s them Irish,” said Clarence hopefully. “The IRA. You know. They’ve been trying to blow this place up.”” Miss Mullins puts such events down to the rise in general lawlessness. “Sad he had to get himself done in by some of this violent guerrilla material that’s always gong about bashing someone […] Go about in little groups they do, and mug people. Nasty lot. Very often the younger they are, the nastier they are.”
In other matters, Tommy and Tuppence remark on the fact that they recently had had a census – and you sense that Christie disapproved at the state’s nosiness. There’s early 70s inflation, and the dissatisfaction with the current government; Albert observes “you wouldn’t believe it – eggs have gone up, again. Never vote for this Government again, I won’t. I’ll give the Liberals a go.” Things one used to take for granted are on their way out; “Children nowadays how are four, or five, or six, don’t seem to be able to read when they get to ten or eleven. I can’t think why it was so easy for all of us.” People don’t buy birthday cards much anymore; and even fruit isn’t what it was: “there were such wonderful gooseberries in the garden. And greengage trees too. Now that’s a thing you practically never see nowadays, not real greengages. Something else called gage plums or something, but they’re not a bit the same to taste.”
Tuppence is very proud of her handbag. “Very nice present, this was,” she said. “Real crocodile, I think. Bit difficult to stuff things in sometimes.” Anyone today who still regularly uses a real crocodile handbag would definitely suppress the fact!
Classic denouement: No – in fact there’s barely a denouement at all. We do discover some of the solutions to some of the issues, including the identity of the murderer; but it’s all written so lacking in urgency or any sense of occasion, and it’s all revealed second- or third-hand. You keep expecting a final twist, and it never happens.
Happy ending? It looks as though Tommy and Tuppence may – or may not – continue living at The Laurels, but wherever they live they’ll always be the same bantering couple who love each other’s company but probably irritate the hell out of everyone else. So I guess it’s happy for them!
Did the story ring true? In part. The code in the book and the concealment of clues in the house is something that you can just about accept. The most extraordinary coincidence is that Tommy and Tuppence happen to retire, of all places, to this particular house of secrets. It’s also surprising that its contents were not cleared before they moved in, or that the local people who know so much about what went on there haven’t done anything to publicise it. Why did no one mention the Pensioners Palace Club earlier? Why did the kids not tell their parents the things they knew?
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s very unsatisfactory. It’s a toss-up between whether this is better or worse than Passenger to Frankfurt; there’s not a lot in it. That book is more preposterous and ridiculous, but at least has quite an exciting ending. This book is just blancmange. 1/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Postern of Fate, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is a return to the short story format, with Poirot’s Early Cases, eighteen tales published in periodicals between 1923 and 1935 and which had never (with a couple of exceptions) been published in book form in the UK before. So it will be odd but enjoyable to go back in time and revisit the early days of Poirot and Hastings. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!